After years of experience with clients including top sportsmen, I am of the opinion that further research is necessary into back problems to find and simplify solutions. Where strength and conditioning trainers swear by weight training, yoga teachers employ starkly contrasting methods to achieve back health. Although eccentric training is one of the main aspects of strength training, and yogic postures are mostly about eccentric training, we have different takes on the subject of back health. Not to forget rehab experts, physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths, spine specialists, etc., who also have different understandings of the subject. This is way too much information to process for anybody! And since I train sportsmen in all aspects of fitness, my take on the subject is different as I also add relaxation in the training regime.
Yes, we may need strength training, yoga or any other form of exercise that can help restore our back and make it stronger. But is our back ready for the grind? How do we know that?
How about restoring back health first, before grinding it in lieu of strengthening or making it flexible?
How about defining Level 0 for our back and taking it forward from there?
Q.What is level 0 for a healthy back?
A: Level 0 for a healthy back is when we can bend forward, bend sideways, twist or bend backward as needed. If we can perform all these actions without fear of injury or experiencing pain, we are at level 0.
Q. Can we get aggressive with back training if we are at level 0?
A: Absolutely. The whole purpose of coming ‘back’ to this level is to train it harder and make it stronger.
Q. What happens if we start with strength training before reaching level 0?
Ans: Ask yourself whether training will facilitate the basic movements or hamper them. If you can’t think of an answer, you’re reading the right article…
Reaching level 0 is a daunting task, even for sportsmen who train hard.
One of these days, while browsing through my pictures, I came across something beautiful. It was an affirmation of my thought process. I came across these different pictures taken in different settings, using weird props, creating new scenarios every time, yet, attending to the same subject.
I use different forms of training to reach level 0 and I call this process ‘relaxation.’ In human movement science it is known as releasing, lengthening, activating, and integrating muscles. I also include an element of strength by adding resistance within self, in addition to, training the mind. Hence, my concept of relaxation covers various aspects of training.
Q. Does this work in enhancing the performance on the field?
A: 100 percent. I have several case studies proving that.
Relaxation is bringing the body back in order. It requires resting the tired muscles, activating the sleeping ones, and helping them fall back in their alignment
Relaxation can be divided into two parts: mental and physical. Both are important if you are chasing a relaxed self. So, how about achieving mental relaxation in our pursuit to relax physically? Possible? Read on….
Whether it is the levels of amino acid or mild ecstasy coming from the frontal lobe of the brain; the fundamental principle of relaxation is being at ease with the self – both mentally and physically.
(For more information on back structure, kindly read my article ‘Back is not Singular’: https://umeshchhikara.wordpress.com/2018/07/21/back-is-not-singular/)
Healthy Back = Upper back + middle back + lower back
Consider this to be a mathematical equation with x denoting all three components. Now think what happens if you increase or decrease the value of one of the components? The other two components will have to compensate for any deviation and make up for the loss or gain in value if we wish to keep the final result the same: a healthy back.
Whether you are sitting, working, playing or standing, this equation is bound to be disturbed due to the varying activation of the three components from action to action. Now assume these variations to be regular because of repeated action/activity, it is bound to make compensation (for each component) a consistent factor too. This is why you will generally not see similar muscle dimensions when two people perform the same posture.
Q. Do you think it is simple?
A: Yes, it is and yet difficult. But if it is done properly, then this simplest of exercise can release, activate, integrate and strengthen your back. This is a necessity in reaching level
The picture on the left shows you how different individuals understanding of getting into a side bend first time whereas pictures below show you the difference it makes when done properly. Regardless of the angle, everybody has a different limit; one must try to keep the spine alignment intact to allow it to work together to facilitate the bend.
The right picture is showing the same side bend, which actually doesn’t look that simple now, after looking at the above individuals. Here we are aiming to open the entire back, focusing on the upper and middle back.
Result: release, activation, integration and strengthening of the entire back
(You can make this work for several muscles. For example: loosening the lower grip would relax the shoulder and rotator cuff muscles to bring more focus to the spine)
Here are some more pictures taken in different settings attending to the same subject. They are achieving similar results overall as the trainee in the above pictures. This is relaxation.The pictures below show good direction if you like to start working towards it.
The left picture shows a good stretch for shoulder rotator cuff muscles, whereas you can shift the impact closer and more directly to the thoracic spine and surrounding muscles as in the below picture by changing the grip and focus. Both postures contribute significantly to releasing, activating and integrating your upper back.
Impact: Upper back
The pictures on the below show alternative postures aiming to work on the upper back to help open and integrate different muscles in the region. So it is fine to not have a rod and a tree 😊
It’s as simple as nursing an injury as soon as you get it. Relax when you feel the tension and don’t set any timelines or standards. Don’t look into literature to check whether relaxation is suitable at any given point in time! It’s your internal communication with your body which no outsider can ever understand.
You sleep when you are sleepy…you eat when you are hungry… and you relax when you are tired.
It is relaxation…feel it and enjoy while it lasts.
Forward bending and lengthening of spine:
How difficult do you think forward bending could be?
It’s not as simple as it looks. The right picture shows a good way to lengthen the spine. Can you tell the difference between this and the picture below?
If you can then you know the capability of our spine and how we keep it!
Try it and you will know that it is not that easy to bend forward – causing your thoracic spine to straighten even though you are structurally aligned to bring straightness in the spine.
Elasticity is the strength of our spine
As you can see in the pictures below, it is not easy to bend forward! The broader idea is to understand the need for it and do it on a regular basis until you reach the point shown in the above picture, for a healthy back .
Back bend: moving to one of the most important and yet most ignored poses in sports and otherwise, that not only helps you maintain good health for your back, but also strengthens your lower back.
The above picture shows a simple back bend working the entire back, whereas the picture on the left shows the tweaked version of the same back bend.
Can you spot the difference?
The important point to note here is how we can add resistance within the stretch to make it more challenging and thereby converting this simple looking stretch into a strengthening exercise for the lower back.
And don’t be surprised if you feel more work in the shoulders in the posture on the right. If so, it is a strong indication that your shoulders need some attention.
There are different ways to practice back bends and below are some more examples in different settings. For more information on why backbends are crucial for a healthy back, read my article on the spine:
The art of relaxation is in finding stretch within a stretch; relaxation within relaxation and posture within a posture – to ultimately find comfort within discomfort.
Submission: If one feels pain/discomfort anywhere in the back or shoulder region doing these basic stretches, then the first aim should be to get rid of the pain before considering any other forms of back training. Our first purpose should a healthy back – level 0 – followed by whatever your requirement could be in terms of strengthening or flexibility. Trust me: you will be amazed by how your body responds when it has risen from level 0. The message here is not to jump the queue if you want to maintain a healthy back.
PS: Must read article on spine if you are concerned about your back: https://umeshchhikara.wordpress.com/2018/10/16/back-pain-confused-lets-look-the-spine-way/
“Live less out of habit and more out of intent” – Gautam Buddha
Movement Specialist I S&C trainer I Relaxation specialists